What does Jesus mean when he says “Do not judge”? How do we respond to injustice, oppression, racism, sexism and prejudice without judgment? I’ve contemplated this for years, and here is where I’ve landed, for now at least.
In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus says, “Do not judge,” but a few verses later he says we can tell what kind of character someone has based on the kind of fruit they produce. That sounds like judgment. So, for simplicity’s sake, let’s call what Jesus says not to do, “judgment,” and what he encourages us to do, “discernment.”
Judgment, as I see it, defines things, situations and people. It declares, “This situation is bad. That person is wicked. Those people are evil.”
There are a number of reasons Jesus tells us not to do this. First, we aren’t in a place to define situations, people or things, because we rarely have all the facts. For example, a situation that seems awful at first may end up being one of the best things to happen to us. Similarly, people are complex and multi-layered. We don’t fully understand ourselves, let alone others. Only God knows the truth and depth of each situation, person or thing. To put ourselves in the position of judge is to make ourselves God.
Another reason we shouldn’t judge is because it only produces more judgment. Imagine two fires burning on earth. One is God’s great bonfire that provides light, warmth and comfort. It brings people together like a good bonfire does. The other fire is a raging wildfire of destruction. It burns, consumes, destroys and devours.
Jesus says that whenever you judge, you are adding fuel to this destructive wildfire. You are feeding that which destroys trust, community, unity, peace, love and connection in the world. Instead, Jesus encourages us to fuel God’s bonfire of love and light by practising things like non-judgment and discernment.
Discernment doesn’t focus on the other. It focuses on my character and my responsibility, insofar as I have the ability to respond. Discernment means to separate or sift. It sifts the wheat from the chaff, first and foremost in myself. It helps me determine if this thought, feeling or attitude arising within me is wisdom or reactivity, profitable or unhelpful, honest or biased, Spirit-aligned or ego-induced. This awareness helps me assess and choose the best response.
For example, if someone steals from me, judgment declares that person a thief. Judgment says, “Based on what I’ve experienced, observed and learned here, this is who that person is.” Discernment says, “Based on what I’ve experienced, observed and learned, this is who I need to be in relation with this person right now, until I learn more.”
Discernment focuses on how to see clearly and respond appropriately.
Should I call the police? Get a lawyer? Ask the person to give back what they stole? Humbly inquire with an honest intention to understand why they felt they needed to steal? Forgive them and let it go? Get a home security system to prevent future thefts? All of the above?
Back to the Sermon on the Mount. Jesus is referring to preachers with ulterior motives when he says we need to “discern” other people’s character based on their fruit. Jesus isn’t encouraging us to label someone a false teacher. His point is that we need discernment to know who we can trust, especially when it comes to our spiritual growth and well-being. The focus is on discerning how I need to respond to this person. Do I need to be on guard? Do I need to establish stricter boundaries with them? Do I need to separate and distance myself from them? Do I need to confront them to protect vulnerable people I see suffering because of them?
Discernment is never focused on shaming, blaming or scapegoating others. It is focused on my character and responsibility. This means my work for peace and justice and my “prophetic” confrontations must flow from discernment, not judgment. To be discerning means committing myself to an ongoing assessment of the need for change within myself, first and foremost.
There is far more to discernment than this, but healthy discernment always begins within oneself, as we learn to constantly separate the wheat from the chaff in our own hearts and minds, and align our responses to divine Spirit, because the truth is, we are all full of chaff.
Troy Watson is a pastor of Avon Mennonite Church in Stratford, Ont.